INDIANAPOLIS -- Bombarded by questions about a bizarre scandal involving a fake girlfriend hoax, Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te'o hardly even blinked with the eyes of the entire NFL staring at him.
Te'o didn't even lose his cool Saturday when he was sarcastically asked if he was dating anyone in real life, keeping his facial expression unchanged while replying that he's single.
It was Teo's first news conference since it was first revealed that he had been duped by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo into a phony Internet relationship with a fabricated woman named Lennay Kekua.
“I could have done some things different, obviously, did a lot of things different to avoid this stuff,” Te'o said. “Anybody to go through that, that's definitely embarrassing. You're walking through grocery stores and I get people's double-takes, and you see that they're staring at you, and that's definitely embarrassing.
“I guess it's part of the process, part of the journey. It's only going to make me stronger in the end, and it definitely has. If I was still embarrassed, I wouldn't be standing in front of you.''
Te'o rise to Heisman Trophy finalist was propelled in part by his performance in a September game against Michigan State — in which he had 12 tackles, a fumble recovery and a sack — just days after Kekua had supposedly died of leukemia.
However, they had actually never met and she never existed. Te'o has repeatedly said he was the victim of an elaborate fraud. He was "catfished," the popular term for someone who's been duped this way.
Yet Te'o kept talking about the woman in interviews after discovering the truth in December before Deadspin exposed that it was all a hoax.
“People doubt me because I took a while to come out,” Te'o said when asked why he took a while to give his side of a complicated story. “I think from our point of view, we wanted to let everything come out first, and then have my side come out. The way that we did it, I felt worked best for me and I'm just very grateful for those who helped me to get through that time because I think it went over as smoothly as it could.”
When asked why he didn't try to meet Kekua, Te'o replied: “I did. We made plans. Obviously, it didn't work out.”
“Quite a few teams asked me about it,” Te'o said. “Some go certain lengths, some just ask me, ‘Just give me a brief overview of how it was,' and then they just go straight to football. Just tell me the facts. Then, they just want to hear it from me, and I just tell them basically what happened.
“I would say, 'I cared for somebody, and that's what I was taught to do, ever since I was young. If someone needs help, you help them out, and unfortunately, it didn't end up the way I thought it would.”
Te'o said the most difficult moment he's dealt with involving the incident was getting a telephone call from his sister telling him that his family was forced to sneak into its house in Oahu, Hawaii, because a crush of reporters was staked out waiting for them.
“Just why?” Te'o said. “It should never get that way. We have to realize we're all people, somebody is somebody's son, somebody is somebody's daughter. Would you want somebody doing that to your son? Would you want somebody doing that to your daughter? If not, why do it?
“Through this whole experience, I've learned that. Since I've experienced it, the things I see, the things I do, I try to always think 'That's somebody's son. That's somebody's daughter. That's somebody's mom, dad. Whatever I do try to base what I do off of that.”
Often linked to the Ravens' 32nd overall pick in various mock drafts, Te'o seemed to light up when asked about potentially replacing retiring inside linebacker Ray Lewis in the middle of the Super Bowl champions' defense.
“I've grown up watching Ray Lewis,” Te'o said. “Just watching his intensity, his passion for the game, his love for the game, his work ethic, man, everything in a linebacker that you want to be is in Ray Lewis, from leadership qualities and all that.
“He'll be definitely missed in Baltimore and in the NFL as a whole, but if I get to go to Baltimore, it's definitely some big shoes to fill, but an opportunity that I will now be honored to have.”
It's debatable whether the 6-foot-2, 255-pound player would still be available by the time the Ravens pick or if they would want a linebacker who's not known for his speed and quickness.
Te'o was engulfed by blockers, especially burly Crimson Tide offensive guard Chance Warmack, and got trucked by running back Eddie Lacy. He made no excuses for a dreadful performance.
“All on me,” Te'o said. “I played hard and so did my team. They just executed better than we did.”
While the scrutiny is intense, Te'o said he fully realizes why NFL teams are so curious about the Kekua episode.
Even though he's a highly decorated defender who intercepted seven passes last season, how he fits into the delicate chemistry of a locker room is critical — especially because he would be projected into a major role as a likely defensive signal-caller and captain.
“Yeah, they want to know somebody,” Te'o said. “They want to be able to trust their player, and you don't want to invest in somebody they can't trust. They're just trying to get to know you as a person and as a football player, and I understand where they're coming from.”
Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner has gotten to know Te'o while training alongside him at the IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and said he's seen nothing but poise from the former Fighting Irish star despite the controversy.
“He was a normal guy, he didn't let that affect him,” Werner said. “Only he knows the truth. He's just a great guy. I'm really close with him.”
“Personally, I don't get caught up in everything that is swirling around him,” Elway said. “I'm looking forward to sitting down and talking to him. I know him as a football player. He's a very good football player. He's going to have a successful career in the NFL.”
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